After coming off a very, long series of sermons (two years including a couple breaks), overviewing the Bible book-by-book, I realized several new people at my church had never heard me preach that way I had previously: through whole books of the Bible. So, before my new series through Jonah, I decided to help them understand why I preach expositionally, and why I think it’s best to do that through books of the Bible. Here’s a slightly edited version of what I said.
What is expositional preaching?
I want to spend just a few minutes explaining why I preach through books. As a foundation for that, though, let me back up and explain my larger understanding of, and approach to, preaching itself. I preach expositional sermons. Now, many people will say they preach expositional sermons, and some do and some don’t. So, what is an expositional sermon? What is expositional preaching?
Well, the grammar geeks will tell you that ‘expositional’ is just a fancy word that comes from the verb exposit, which simply means ‘to explain or expound.’ In other words, expositional messages start with the Bible and simply explain what is there. Now, that seems straight forward enough but think about the implications of that for a minute. If my desire is to explain the biblical text, it means I don’t begin my sermon preparation with an idea of what I want to say. I don’t write up the sermon and start looking for scripture verses to back it up. No, I start with the text; I start with the Bible and I ask, ‘What is there? Why was it written? What is God trying to say in the text?’ It’s not a matter of what I want to say, it’s a matter of explaining to myself and to you what God is saying in his word.
Why is that important? Because God speaks through his words, not mine. And when God speaks things happen: nations rise and fall, his will is fulfilled, Christians are matured, the church is grown, and sinners are saved. So, that’s my basic approach to preaching: start with what the text says and just explain it. But you can do that the way we’ve been doing—isolated texts from different books. As long as you are faithful to the surrounding context, then that’s fine; that’s still an expositional message.
Why preach through whole books of the Bible?
So, why preach through books? There are some theological reasons and some practical reasons for why I preach through books. First, it acknowledges the value of all of God’s words: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). The word all there in the original Greek means all. Every part of God’s word—every argument of discourse, every parable, every poem, every proverb, every line of genealogy is important. If for no other reason, it’s important because it all points to and shows better the glory of Jesus (Luke 24:27; 44-48). This leads to my second point: all Scripture is helpful. Understood and applied rightly to our lives we will be taught, rebuked, corrected, and trained in righteousness. So, preaching through books acknowledges that all of God’s word is valuable and helpful.
Furthermore, I believe preaching through books actually helps us better understand God’s word. The Bible isn’t a magic eight-ball. God’s words come in sentences, which come in paragraphs, which come in large sections where authors are making arguments under the banner of one, large story. I’m convinced that you will actually understand the Bible better if you read it the way God has given it, rather than bouncing around all the time. And I can show that best if I preach through books. So understand that while I do not believe it’s inherently wrong to preach from different books each week, or to do a topical series of expositional sermons from different texts under a central theme (I do this at least once a year), I am convinced that over the long haul, preaching through entire books is better.
Furthermore, this is why, I think, there are historical examples of preaching through books. Some of the earliest Christian preachers, like John Chrysostom and Augustine preached through books. Not to mention reformers like John Calvin, along with more modern preachers whose ministries have proved themselves by long-serving fruit in the lives of God’s people.
Finally, there are some practical benefits for the preacher as well. First of all, preaching through books keeps me from Saturday night fever! Charles Spurgeon writes in his autobiography about sitting on Saturday afternoons, writing up outline after outline, wadding up each one and tossing it in the garbage, not knowing what to preach about. As one pastor has said, ‘He probably threw away more good outlines then I’ve every came up with!’ Furthermore, preaching through books keeps me from riding hobby horses. There may be themes or ideas I like in the Bible more than others and the temptation is keep returning to those familiar themes in the Bible. But if I’m preaching through a book, I can’t do that—I have to preach what’s there. Which also means that I can’t duck the tough passages. There are some texts that are frankly difficult to preach. It’s not that the verses aren’t true or unhelpful, it’s that they either strike to the heart of modern sensibilities and make us squirm or they are just plain difficult to understand. But if I’m preaching through a book, I can’t skip them. You know what passage is coming next. So, preaching through books keeps me honest. It forces me to preach what Paul calls the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), not just the easy bits.
There’s more I could say, but we’ll leave it at that. This is why I preach expositionally, especially through books.